Steve Featherstone has many cold-blooded friends, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He owns and operates the Reptile Adventure Camp in Bonfield, which offers educational programming to children, and provides outreach events to interested parties throughout the area.
This is Featherstone’s fourth summer in Bonfield after moving his business north from Hamilton. Upon arrival, he invested over one hundred thousand dollars to upgrade his garage to make it suitable for his animals. The wheels were in motion to open his camp.
Within a year, a catastrophic fire decimated the new building. Many animals lost their lives, and “probably one of the largest private collections in Canada,” of zoological specimens went up in flames as well.
See: Reptile camp owner trying to get back on track after tragic fire
See: Donations pour in for burned out reptile park
The collection included over 400 species of animal skulls, including Siberian tigers, rhinos, and hippos, all of which had passed away at zoos. “It was quite the collection for sure,” he recalled, and “a very hefty investment,” which he used as educational tools at this camp.
Since then, the business has been working “to diversify our program a little away from animals,” Featherstone said, adding that over the 25 years he’s been doing this, things are beginning to change, mostly with “schools being a little more difficult with the animals,” increasing regulations about what is allowed within a classroom.
As such, the reptile camp functions much like a regular camp, with kayaking, hikes, and swimming. The reptiles still constitute the main attraction, but other programs were added to round out the offerings.
Things were well on track, then Covid hit, and “we haven’t been able to earn a single dollar in 14 months now.”
Money from overnight camps disappeared due to Covid regulations, and with social gatherings banned, the outreach shows dried up as well.
See: Rescuing reptiles, counselling kids, and working the front lines of the COVID situation keep him busy
Although people and money were dwindling, the animals remained, and they continued to arrive.
“All of our animals are rescues,” Featherstone clarified, “mostly former pets that people have lost interest in, or they weren’t legally allowed to keep.”
Recently, he rescued a boa from North Bay, two Ball pythons from Corbeil, and 12 tarantulas from Callander. “It’s pretty much an ongoing thing,” he said, the reptiles continue to arrive.
On average, he puts up 50 ball pythons a year, just from the area. “Some stay for a couple of months, and some stay forever,” he added.
Some are adopted out, and others find homes in zoos and operations like his. Featherstone is well-connected to the reptile crowd throughout the country, so finding new homes is not as difficult as one may think.
See: Reptile Adventure Camp unveils animal adoption program
However, many stay with Featherstone, and currently he is taking care of about 100 animals. A 19-foot reticulated python “left in an apartment building in Ottawa,” and a nine-foot female alligator “originally sold as a salamander when it was super small in Hamilton to a kid” have both been long term residents of the camp.
There’s also a 120-pound snapping turtle, a slew of snakes, and crocodilians of all stripes. “We’ve got a bit of everything,” and feeding alone takes about ten hours a week.
Despite the difficult times brought on by the pandemic, the business continues to operate—albeit at a reduced level due to Covid regulations—and Featherstone is optimistic. Staff have been hired and are ready to go, and soon campers will return for day visits.
“We’re trying to create a lifelong passion and respect for animals,” Featherstone said, who continues working to ensure these lessons remain long after the pandemic subsides. After all, reptiles continue to find their way to his camp, and somebody must care for them.
See: Reptile Camp making a difference
David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca